Who Are You?

In the dusk, Gorman could have become lost. The gullies of the mountain’s higher slope conceal hidden dangers. Gorman, however, strides confidently. This was where he had spent most of the previous year as a recluse. He is making his way quietly along a familiar gully toward a plateau on the only part of the mountain that connects to the formidable range of snow-topped peaks behind.

Pinpoint lights above shine steadily. Gorman glances periodically to his right to confirm the location of the One Constant Star.

From the distance, a clinking sound carries in the breeze that comes down the gully. He stops. Another sound – a thunk. Then hoarse whispers, “Damn! Thought my robe was on the ground.” “It is, dummy. And so are the rocks.” “Quiet!”

Gorman stays still for several minutes, listening. Hearing no more noises, he carefully steps up the side of the gully toward his hidden cave. The moon shows a three-quarter face as he steps around an outcropping of the mountain. In a flash, an animal rips past him. Being too low for the moonlight to see at his feet, all he knows of the animal is that it is the size of a smaller dog and that it slashed at his legs as it ran past.

Alert to any other animals that may be in his hidden cave, Gorman lets his eyes adjust to the darkness inside while standing to the side of the low opening. He slowly slips a hand down to his calf. The leather front is tough but past the lower strap that holds the leather to his leg, the skin is moist. Sooner than he wants, Gorman reaches for where his candle should be on a ledge. It is not there. He pushes around at the base of the stony wall and feels what is likely the remains of the candle. He tries to place it back on its shelf. It flops over.

Gorman feels around the shelf for the flint and its frizzen. “Still here. Whatever that animal was, it gnawed into the candle.” He feels for the hole higher up where he had kept a ball of kindling. “Drier than ever. Good.” Placing the kindling into a small depression on the shelf, Gorman prepares the candle by rubbing down its base against the wall to be flatter, then readies the flint and frizzen to make sparks. A few hard, practiced knocks against the flint by the steel chunk produces bright sparks that fall into the kindling. The dry material catches fire quickly. Gorman sees that the candle has been eaten at both ends but the wick still pokes out. He lights the wick and, once started, he quickly puts out the small knot of fire in the kindling by pressing down with the frizzen.

Satisfied with his light, Gorman scans the cave for eyes that may be glaring him. None do. Then he slips down to lean against the cave’s inside wall. Undoing the strap that holds the leather piece to his leg, he sees blood dribbling from cuts made by the animal to the side of his leg.

“Damn. Have to use Auntie’s medicine.” He places the candle onto a boulder, first dripping some melted wax onto the top of the boulder, then quickly sticking the candle onto it. He awkwardly pulls off his personal bag from his back. The arm movement sends the candle into a quiver, shaking, and sending shadows around the cave and outside. Staying still with his arms raised, holding the bag, Gorman waits for the nervous flame to calm down. He watches its smoke rise in a straight line. Satisfied, he moves carefully to remove the bag and place it next to his uncut leg. He sorts through wrapped packages, pulling out a still-green leaf and a salve. Gorman finds a ribbon of scrap cloth that will reach around his leg twice. He uses the front side of the leaf to rub down the wound, cleaning off the still-leaking blood. He uses the clean side of the leaf to hold a small amount of salve then daubs it delicately against the scratches. Finished with the medicine, he wraps it with the cloth ribbon.

All this is being witnessed by Leeloo, hiding as still as a mouse from behind a shrub to where she had crawled from nearby after noticing the flint flashes.

Gorman leans back to relax. He knows he should raise his leg to reduce the blood flow. He knows this because it is one of the many things Auntie taught him. He mumbles, “I do love Auntie.”

Before Gorman can lift the leg over the other, the bush outside speaks to him. “I love my mother.”

Staying still, Gorman uses his calm voice. “Yes. Who are you?”

A shuffle gives Gorman a general direction of the voice. “I’m Leeloo. Who are you?” She half-rises, staying behind the bush.

He smiles. “I am Gorman. From the village down there.” He nods down the ravine.

“Are you the shepherd?” Leeloo rises to stand beside the bush.

Gorman shakes his head slowly, trying to make out who Leeloo is with the moonlight shining from behind her.

“My mother and the others want to thank him for the sheep. We want to help him with the herd.”

He shifts uncomfortably on the hard rock of the cave floor. “Leeloo, can you help me?” She takes a step forward. “I was scratched by an animal…”

“A marmot. It was probably frightened when you came to its cave.”

“Well, actually, this is my cave. I was going to let it sleep here if it played nice. I guess you are right, Leeloo. I must have frightened it.” He slowly shuffles to his feet, checking that the girl has not run away. “The candle is pretty frightened, too. Do you mind pulling it off that boulder and putting on its shelf, here?”

Leeloo steps to the cave entrance.

“Does your mother have candles?”

She shakes her head. “The light? No. We had to leave everything when we were chased into the mountains by those horrible monsters.” She starts to pout.

“Well, a candle is a really frightened little thing. If you breath in its direction, or wave at it at all, it will die.”

Leeloo’s eyes grow wide. “Die?”

“More frightened than any marmot.” Gorman nods emphatically. “It wants to stick to a rock and just while away its short life in peace.”

“Poor thing.” Leeloo takes short steps toward the candle.

“Remember, Leeloo. Don’t breath at it.”

She averts her head quickly. Stepping to the boulder, she is about to reach up a hand. “Will it die if I touch it?”

Smiling, “No, it enjoys your warm hand. Carefully snap it out of the wax at its feet. Yes, that’s good.”

Leeloo chances a face-on look at the candle in her hand. Breath from her nose causes the candle to quiver. “Oh!” The candles stretches away from her exclamation then settles down as Leeloo stays still.

“Good. Now let some of the wet wax on top drip onto the shelf and quickly place the candle’s feet into the wax. It will cool right away.”

She obeys, keeping the candle’s flame from too much disturbance. It is stuck, though not fully vertical.

“Should it be straighter? Will it fall over? Should I fix it better?”

Gorman has shuffled to the soft sand where he had slept for many months. Smiling, “No, that will be fine, Leeloo. Now…” He slips down and arranges himself so that his wounded leg can be elevated. “Tell me all about who you are and about your mother and the others.”

Nature Calls

Morbrent and Tommy are late comers to the group around Auntie’s cottage. Hearing scraps of the news about Sebesh’s “attackers”, Morbrent jumps to the conclusion that real monsters are stomping their way to the village at this time. He grabs his friend’s arm in fear as he tries to make sense of what is being said.

Tommy notices Gorman emerging from the cottage door. “Why is he always in the middle of things?”

Bending his head down to avoid the low door opening, Gorman half-turns to answer Auntie’s anxious question. “I am only going to see how many there are, Auntie. Don’t worry. I will get to the mountain slope before the moon rises past the peaks.”

Gorman is taller than most of the other villagers. However, it is not his stature that quickly opens his way through the crowd. His status is firmly as the lowly mucker, so villagers are reluctant to be close to him.

Gorman was always fastidious in cleaning up his outerwear after morning rounds. Nevertheless, several of the women, young and old, turn up the noses as he passes.

The original hamlet was an accidental decision by two families who had made the dangerous trek across the mountains to the east. They were too tired to go further so they stayed in the meadow that became the Commons. One of those founding families was Grandfather Gorman’s great/great grandparents. The other family petered out over the generations. Different families were welcomed as they made their way there, either fleeing violence or searching for peace. Every new arrival was welcomed by the Gorman clan. They didn’t do so with any fanfare. They merely gave the newcomers beds and food for the night, then helped them start their own gardens and abode. The Gormans neither wanted thanks nor did they receive it for very long. Outsiders somehow found it intimidating and even suspicious that help should be so freely given. There must be something they wanted.

So, when Morbrent’s family was chased away from a town beyond the other side of the nearby lake, Grandfather Gorman’s quiet welcome was greeted with more ill feeling rather than gratitude.

As the village grew larger and some newer families did not know how to behave in a self-reliant community, disputes occurred and certain conventions fell apart. Reluctantly, village meetings were held to settle disagreements between established residents and newcomers. It was decided to begin certain village services for the benefit of all, even though these things had been taken care of by individual families in the past. The village’s growth produced previously unnecessary group actions. Conventions transformed into rules.

The Gorman family’s main contribution to the village in his grandfather’s time had been to help the community by taking on the one task that everyone avoided – keeping the packed-clay street clean of the nightly accumulation of muck. Newcomers simply tossed the contents of their chamber pots out the bedroom window as they arose. With bedrooms being on the second floor of most of the houses, a wide spray pattern was created. Telling them it was rude to do so fell on deaf ears. “Well, this is what they do in the big towns. Since we don’t have a gutter, walk on the Commons side of the street if you must be out in the early morning.”

Grandfather Gorman decided that his commitment to the welfare of the village had to be scraping the muck every morning from the street in front of the houses and pile it for use, after a year’s aging, in the far side of the Commons. This was, wisely, placed downwind of the village houses.

What was at first considered a blessing by the other villagers became the curse of Grandfather Gorman’s family. When the old man grew too ill to do his morning rounds, villagers grew upset, then angry. The elder Gorman had no son. His two daughters were forced by the constant, acrimonious blather in the village to take over from their father. When the older daughter was to be married to the new family that later produced Morbrent, her suitor renounced his troth, saying he could not live in a house which smelled all day of muck. He told this to Grandfather Gorman’s other daughter, Yolotli, not wanting to face the young woman whom he knew was now with child. Grandfather Gorman lived only another few summers. He said to his dying days that he was proud of his family’s hard work and contribution to the village. His daughters were not so sure.

As the years flowed by, young Gorman accompanied his mother and aunt on their dreary morning duty to the village. By the time he had seen twelve summers, Gorman showed intelligence in suggestions to ease their burden, and strength with his growing height and doggedness to get the work done.

Auntie Yolotli once took a break to apply a soothing salve to her sister’s hands. “Father always said that our family’s mission is to help others. Laka, your lovely son follows in that tradition. Is that his destiny? To serve others?”

“Your voice carries a hint of questioning spite, dear Yolotli. And yet, here you are, always searching for healing herbs to ease the suffering of others.”

Yolotli dropped her head. “Appreciation. Merely the hint of appreciation is all I desire. Not from you, dear sister. We understand each other.” Still holding the hand she was caressing, they leaned against each other’s cheek.

Another four summers was all the love that Laka could give to her son. Then her heart gave up.

A few days after the village funeral Gorman disappeared.

He returned the next spring. Would not speak of where he had been. Was angered when he learned that Yolotli had been left to muck the street on her own for all that time.

In their one-storey cottage, Gorman tearfully apologized to his aunt. “Dear Auntie, what has our family done to deserve this punishment?”

He was in a deep depression and decided that the only way to break the circle of torment was to leave the village for good.

Yolotli sighed. “My dear Gorman. I do understand where you are. I, too, was there after… after Laka left us. In my anger at the ignorant misery inflicted on us by the village I spent my anger on the clay pots scattered about our home. When nothing was left to smash, and our good neighbours came to see what the noise was all about, I ran off into the woods on the far side of the lake. In my mind I could only see myself slipping under the lake’s soothing water. Then, sitting on a rotting log to get up my courage, I saw mushrooms poking up under the log. Thinking they were poisonous, I resolved to ease my pain by taking a handful, wade into the water, down the mouthful and slip away, to no longer be a bother to anyone.”

Gorman was horrified. “Auntie! You can’t!”

She smiled. “I didn’t. I did wade out, but when I stuffed the mushrooms into my mouth and stood there waiting for it all to end, the mushrooms spoke to me. The ripples on the water spoke to me. The kestrel yelled at me. Butterflies gathered around my shoulders and lifted me back to the log. When they dropped me onto the nearby grass, I looked down to see my body bounce slowly as waves of colour spread out and I lay on the pillows of the meadow, and the music of nature sang to me from everywhere.” Yolotli took a breath.

“The music spoke to me in ways I had never heard before. I could not understand it, at first. Then many meanings rose in my mind. Floating above my sleeping body, I started to understand. How nature connected every living thing in ways that people could not know. They fought so hard from knowing. I saw that the harder they fought against nature’s songs, the more monstrous they became. They changed from loving the life in which they participated, to loving not-life. They lived in rooms above life. They changed to loving not-nature. Too many went on a savage quest to surround themselves with not-life. Absolutely straight lines. Square boxes. Rules that constrained creativity rather than celebrating it.”

Yolotli sat silently, remembering her time of change.

Gorman was intrigued. He wondered if something like that could happen to him. “Auntie…”

She looked up at his questioning face. “You wonder if the same reshaping might happen to you?’

He nodded.

Yolotli shook her head slowly. “This is not like a salve I apply to your wound, dear Gorman. It may burn through your arm. It may take you down into the depths of a black spiral from which you cannot climb out… It is dangerous. You must be prepared.”

He was confused. “How can I be prepared for something with such unknown dominion over my mind? Were you prepared?”

She shook her head. “I have always been possessed by the power of nature, so perhaps, yes, that was my meagre preparation… Perhaps I was guided by a few tendrils of nature.” She took his hands into hers. “First, dear Gorman, you must open your eyes to the many appearances that nature presents. They are not what you wish them to be. They may be terrible to your eyes, as one animal eats another. But seeing it all from the eyes of a soaring kestrel, you will see that every thing eats every other thing. A wolf pack will devour a deer, and at the end of its life the wolf’s body will be devoured by the soil, feeding the plants above it. Nature wishes only to maintain life. It passes no judgment as to which life will hold the stage at any time. There is only life, or not-life.”

Gorman nodded. “And, as you have taught me, people seem to have the power to create more not-life than has existed before.”

She smiled. “You have begun your journey to enlightenment.”

They Came Knocking

Campfire – Getty Images

Gorman and Morbrent are playing in the Commons.

The game is simple – use a wooden-tipped spear you made yourself to hit a target, which is a tightly woven ring of tough reeds set against a stoop of straw. The loser then goes to gather the spears and they take another five paces further away. Despite being only a lowly mucker, Gorman usually wins, particularly as they get to distances beyond twenty paces.

This time, as Morbrent angrily stomps to retrieve the spears, he deliberately yanks Gorman’s spear sideways, cracking it. When he tosses the broken spear to Gorman, Morbrent yells, “You better find stronger wood to make your spears, Mucker. This one almost left a long splinter in my hand!”

They nearly come to blows, but a friend of Morbrent trips Gorman from behind. The young man finds himself lying flat on his back, breathing heavily as they stand over him, daring him to get up to fight. He doesn’t, wisely knowing what he can do and what he should do. His tormentors laugh and call him a coward, then stomp off, but still looking back to see if Gorman is going to come after them.

Jumping to his feet as Morbrent walks away in the distance, he glares at them. Gorman hefts his broken spear, wondering how far it would fly. Then he stares at the way it broke, leaving an arm’s length from the tip to hang by a sliver of wood. In his mind, Gorman imagines the short piece in his hand, lengthening his arm length by twice. He mumbles absently, “I wonder if I could control the spear as I threw it with something like that? It would go much farther…”

Next morning on his early rounds, Gorman gets caught twice. Morbrent and his cohort from next door, Tommy, toss the full contents of their families’ chamber pots over Gorman as he walks warily between their houses. Not warily enough.

The two pranksters laugh loudly from their bedroom lofts as Gorman the hapless mucker shakes the night’s residue off his broad-brimmed hat and leather cloak.

Life carries on the village. Food is gathered, prepared for the day and for the future. Things are repaired, built or ignored. People speak of trivialities and matters of import.

That afternoon the village shepherd is seen running across the fields from the mountain slope. He runs to the edge of the village, at the blacksmithy, completely exhausted. Panting hoarsely, he is unable to get out what he wants to say. He collapses against the blacksmith’s fence, gasping and groaning. A small crowd gathers around him. The blacksmith, Elaina, holds his shoulders up from behind the fence and helps the shepherd clutch at the top rail.

Finally, looking furtively at the crowd, he takes a deep breath to say, “Monsters! Monsters killed all the sheep! They knocked every one on the head!” He pants hard, dramatically. “And they’re coming here!” The shepherd lifts a quavering hand to point up to the green slope of the nearest mountain. “I took the short-cut ravine to warn you.”

At that he slips backwards against Elaina. She gently lowers him along the fence to the ground.

On pulling her hand away from his shoulder Elaina sees that her hand is covered with blood. Jumping around the fence, she lifts him back up. “Help me carry Sebesh to Auntie Yolotli! He’s bleeding.”

Elaina thinks, Sebesh is one for making up wild stories as he sits alone with his sheep. But he is bleeding.

Sebesh lets the group carry him to Auntie Yolotli’s cottage near the centre of the small village. All the while he weakly protests. “Have to prepare. We need to, to gather weapons. The monsters are coming to kill us all…”

At Auntie’s door, her nephew, Vasu, has heard the commotion and opens the door to let the group in. They are greeted inside by wafting smells of healing herbs coming from an array of pots sitting randomly on makeshift shelves and tables. Auntie Yolotli shuffles from the hearth, mumbling to herself, carrying an overfilled iron kettle of hot water. She indicates for the group holding Sebesh to place him on a pile of straw under the only open window. One of the group, Gorman, gently lowers Sebesh’s leg he was carrying then steps quickly to take the steaming, heavy iron kettle from Auntie. “Here, let me…”

She reluctantly lets him take the round, blackened handle from her wrinkled hands. “Careful, dear Gorman. It is too full to carry. I did not intend to have guests this morning.” She flashes him a kind smile.

Soon most of the village is gathered outside around Auntie’s cottage. The few who had heard what Sebesh had said passed it on excitedly. The crowd quickly becomes agitated. “Monsters? What can we do?” “What can we do? We’re only villagers.”

The “monsters” finish off their meal of a sheep, eating the hastily barbecued meat more slowly than when they had started. Some seat themselves next to a large boulder to crush the larger bones with a carefully chosen rock. Each uses a long bone sliver to scoop out the marrow.

A few of the younger ones feed their small pack of dogs the remaining bones. Even after having gobbled up the innards that had been tossed to them earlier, the dogs now fight over the choicest bones, yelping and growling with sinister teeth bared. In his excitement, one of the dogs nips at the hand of a young teenage girl who feeds him. A protective boy kicks the dog strongly in the ribs, sending it flying into a quarrelling pair, both of whom whip their teeth into a shoulder and rump. The unfortunate dog yelps and jumps away to lick his wounds.

That entertainment brings loud guffaws from the four men. The girl who had been nipped stands in the midst of the canine melee, holding in her tears. Her mother shakes her head as she rushes to scoop her child away to a safer location. “Leeloo! You have to be more careful around these beasts when they are eating! Yes?… Give me a hug.”

As she reaches to hold her daughter, the girl lets out a single sob. “I’m not afraid of them. They’re just dogs.”

Pulling her tight to her bosom, they twirl away from the campfire and her small clan.

Standing beyond the now contented group, with their noses touching, Mother kisses her child and smiles. “Has it started ye…”

Trying to push away, the girl interrupts petulantly, “No!”

Mother continues to hold her gently. “Ok, fine, my dear. Just tell me when it does. I only want to help you.” She kisses her again. “Please?” Mother pats her child’s bum then lets her slip out of her grasp.

Half turned away, Leeloo composes herself. She relents. “I will, Mother. It’s just… it sounds yucky. And… I want to stay with you, Mother. Not go with those, those ruffians.” She smooths down her well-worn cloth shawl over her leather skirt.

Leeloo’s sad face brings a tear to Mother’s eyes. “And so you shall, my lovely one. So you shall.”

Placing a hand on Leeloo’s shoulder, Mother turns to gaze back at her ragged clan around the campfire. “We are a poor clan. Half of us – our elders mostly – were not able to keep up when we crossed the terrible, cold mountains.” They both shake their heads sadly.

Leeloo mumbles, “Grandma…” Tears slide down both their cheeks.

Needing to change her attitude, Mother grins broadly. “But here we are! In a land of plenty! We took only the one sheep we needed and when we see the shepherd again, we will repay him with joyful work. The rest of his flock will be gathered up and herded to another pasture, then we will bring him back and help him with the herd. We used to be very good shepherds. Far away.” Mother turns to stare at the mountains through which they were forced to flee.

Leeloo nods, “Meelo said she saw the shepherd running along a ravine toward the distant village. She says he fell against a rock and hurt himself but then stumbled away.”

One of the clan pulls a flute from his personal bag. Feeling its smooth bone contours and the holes he had lovingly crafted along the shaft, he dreams of notes he used to coax out of the instrument. A woman nearby says softly, “Arash, maybe it is time. Your music has been silent since we, since the monsters burned our lovely village… Here, maybe we are going to be safe.”

Arash strokes his flute delicately, hearing the music in his mind. He nods, then places the flue to his mouth. The first sound that escapes is a hoarse bleat followed by discordant bawls. Arash coughs, then starts again. The flute moans, a long painful appeal to the darkening sky. Then his fingers slip from hole to hole producing a cold plodding beat so that in each of their minds the clan sees the terrible trek they made across barren mountains. The flute then turns warmly to a frolicking beat of lambs jumping as sheep munch through green fields. Arash ends with a single long questioning note, pointing down the slope toward the distant village.

A Long Time Ago

by George Opacic

In a village of industrious craftspeople there lived a young woman who could not cook.

When still a child, her mother had asked her to watch as the soup was made. Mother collected garden-fresh potatoes, carrots, celery, mushrooms and tomatoes, along with parsley, pepper, basil and salt from the pantry. The kitchen air blossomed with the small basket of garden produce she had just gathered. The daughter added more wood to the fire to heat the water, ready on the stove in their iron soup cauldron. Mother showed her daughter how to peel and chop the vegetables, how long to boil the root vegetables and then add the rest of the ingredients each at their own times. When the soup was ready, Mother served it to her family and proudly announced that their daughter would have soup for them the next day.

In preparation for that coming meal, the daughter went out next morning. Mother told her to take along a basket so she could carry home any produce she might want to collect, but the daughter said, “I have a different idea, mother.”

Later that morning the daughter came back with a strong boy who was carrying a heavy cauldron.

Mother was surprised. “Daughter, you do not have any vegetables under your arm and why is Tommy carrying that cauldron?”

Pleased to show her initiative the daughter replied, “Tommy is carrying the vegetables in the soup and it was all prepared by his mother. All I have to do is heat it up in time for supper.”

Sure enough, when Mother looked into the cauldron, it was full of prepared vegetables, spices and even water. “Tommy, why did you carry that heavy cauldron all the way from your house to here? Are you not going to have the soup yourself?”

Tommy looked a bit embarrassed. “Why, no, ma’am. Your daughter bought the soup all prepared and my mother only asks that you have the cauldron cleaned when I come for it tomorrow.”

Now it was Mother’s turn to be confused. “Bought? What do you mean bought?”

Placing his heavy load on the floor inside the door, Tommy explained. “Well, Susan, here, said she’d give my mother a coin if she would prepare the cauldron of soup. And here it is… Do you want it?”

Mother politely thanked Tommy for delivering the soup and promised that the clean cauldron would be ready for him in the morning.

When Tommy left, Mother turned sternly to her daughter. “Susan! What a complete waste of valuable coins! And where did you ever get those coins to throw away with such carelessness?”

Susan was not deterred by her mother’s attitude. “Mother, when you sent me last week to work for old Mrs. Harlow, she agreed to pay me five small coins for my work. So you see, I still have four coins left.”

“WHAT?” Mother was furious. “Mrs. Harlow is old and stiff with her joint pains and she can hardly get out of bed anymore. I sent you there out of charity, to help the poor woman! Not for you to rob her of her last possessions!”

Standing firm in the face of her mother’s wrath, Susan replied. “I did not ask Mrs. Harlow for the coins. She offered them because, as she said, she does not have much time left and she wanted to do some good with her coins before she passed on.”

Mother thought about that. “But still, Susan, I showed you how easy it is to make your soup. How will it look if Tommy goes about telling everyone in the village that you don’t know how to cook? There wouldn’t be a boy around here who would have you!”

“Have me as what, Mother?”

“Why, as a wife, of course!”

Susan thought for minute. “I have to say, Mother, that I cannot think of having any of these boys as my husband.”


Seeing that her mother was about to become apoplectic, Susan scurried away to the stove with her cauldron of soup.

And so it was that Susan grew into a strong-willed young woman who made up her own mind as to what should be done in her life. She never did learn the craft of making her own food. But Susan did not go hungry while her mother was around.

And, apparently, her lack of skill in the kitchen did not deter the young men of the village from constantly asking her to accompany them for a walk in the meadow by the nearby lake. It was during the second of those invitations that Susan found herself in a compromising situation.

Charles was the eldest son of the village blacksmith. He followed in his father’s profession, of course, and was becoming a competent smith with bulging muscles.

One day, Susan was speaking to a group of young ladies about what she had learned when visiting the other village. Her stories were about the people from the great and mysterious and exciting city where the King lived.

Susan had been sent by her mother to the village on the other side of the lake to visit their relatives. Mother thought that Susan would settle down after having a bit of an adventure. Mother was wrong.

The neighbouring village was close to the highway that was used by the King’s men to travel to the sea coast, so the village had grown larger around the original travelers hotel. Now there were three hotels to serve the travelers, not all of whom were in the service of the King.

Susan had stayed for eight days with different relatives. Each night after the big supper, she was regaled with stories of the many travelers and the stories that they brought from the sea coast and from the King’s city. Susan’s mother had allowed her to take one of her small coins along and, on her third day in the bustling village she determined to spend her coin. Accompanied by a cousin who was delegated to keep her safe, Susan walked into the public house that comprised the lower level of the newest and grandest hotel in the village.

She had no idea what to expect. Whatever she may have dreamed about the public house, it was so delightfully foreign from any other experience she had, that Susan stumbled and then danced about from table to group in a trance. She had long conversations with people she had never met before and they spoke of silky clothing styles and jeweled buggy whips and food from the sea that tickled the tongue and curious relationships using words she had never heard before but which she just knew would horrify her mother if she ever heard them.

Hours later, her cousin finally managed to drag Susan outside. It was dark. It was well past supper time but Susan’s head was so filled with the wonders she experienced inside the public house that her head was spinning with colourful visions. Or maybe it was the drink that she bought with her coin.

Back in her own village, everything seemed grey and dull and so boringly quiet that Susan felt the urgent need to tell others about her adventures in the outside world. So, one evening, when Susan was asked by some acquaintances what she had seen and heard in the village across the lake, Susan was more than ready to tell them. She did add a few things, elaborating somewhat on the experiences that travelers had recounted in the public house. As Susan spoke, more young ladies crowded round, eager to hear. The larger the crowd became, the more fantastic Susan’s stories became, and the stories changed from happening to others, to happening to her.

Charles and a few other boys wandered by to see why a crowd was collecting. When they saw that it was Susan telling everyone about her adventures beyond the lake, the boys stayed. Charles was as interested as the others at first. However, he, too, had been to the other village while accompanying his father to bring back supplies of iron and coal. He finally could not contain himself as Susan told of how she had fought off a ruffian from the coast. Charles let out a loud guffaw. “You fought him off? I’d have trouble with some of those devils!”

Susan saw that she was on the verge of losing her rapturous audience. “Yes, Charles, you might have, but this old seaman had lost a leg, which is why they called him Pegleg. As he reached out for me I kicked his wooden leg and he fell headfirst onto a stout chair.”

With delighted chuckles, the audience was back on her side.

Susan learned from her first night’s story-telling to keep closer to reality.

Despite himself, Charles was intrigued with Susan. One day when Charles delivered a packet of new nails for Susan’s father to use on a project, Susan took the lead in bartering for payment. Her father backed away with a knowing smile. Normally, the packet of nails would have been worth two bushels of fresh vegetables from their garden. Susan’s father had been prepared to offer one-and-a-half bushels then perhaps bargain up to the two.

Susan opened the packet to inspect the nails. “Two of these are beginning to rust, Charles. Were they all made this week?” She smiled coyly up at his bushy-bearded face.

He grinned down at her. “I should be careful you don’t kick my pegleg. Yes, Susan. All these nails were hammered out by me, personally, this week. I will take the standard two bushels…”

Susan interrupted him, “Why Charles…” She surprised Charles and her father with her suggestive pose, “…I am disappointed that you should be so forward.” She combed a slithering hand through her light brown curls.

Charles was speechless. He stared at Susan’s hair, then his eyes started wandering, then he suddenly glanced at Susan’s father. At a distinct disadvantage under this feminine onslaught Charles cleared his throat. “Ah, well, like, we normally exchange this many nails for, ah, two bushels, but if, well, like, under the circumstances, with those two very slightly rusty nails in the packet, I will offer my apologies and accept a single bushel of your garden vegetables.” He heard what he had just said and quickly added, “Like, if you wouldn’t mind packing it tightly and having a few good-sized potatoes on the bottom.” He had glanced over at Susan’s father with a pleading look. “If you don’t mind, sir?”

Susan nodded in satisfaction. “That will be fine, Charles. Perhaps you’d care to accompany me to our garden. I can allow you to choose your own potatoes while I collect the rest of the basket.”

Susan’s father had to suppress a laugh. As the two young folk walked back to the garden, Father couldn’t wait to go inside to tell Mother what he had witnessed. Inside, he laughed out loud while she tittered in amusement, and some wonder.

That was when Charles had asked Susan if she’d like to go with him to the meadow by the lake.

That meadow was a favourite place for young folks to meet. Some sat on the slope leading to the lake, gazing at the ripples taken by a breeze across the calm water and made plans. Some gazed at each other, saying nothing, doing much. Some didn’t know what to do and sat stiffly wishing the other person with them would do something. Anything.

Susan was excited to be in the meadow once more. The last time, with Tommy, she was in the category of wishing that something would happen.

As they found a quiet location hidden from the village by shrubs and trees, Susan unfurled her blanket with the intent of sitting down. Charles could not contain himself. He exploded into a runting maelstrom, jumping at Susan and shoving her back onto the blanket, immediately covering her with his sweating body.

As Charles was pulling his pants down, Susan twisted sideways and, in doing so, elbowed him in the side of the head. Stunned, he was easier to push off her. Susan rolled away to jump to her feet. She yelled at Charles as he scrambled to pull his punts up. “What do you think you’re doing, you stupid brute! If you ever touch me again I will scratched your eyes out! One at a time! Believe me!”

Then Susan spun around and ran across the fields back to her house, her heart racing. Before she got to their garden in the Commons, Susan found herself smiling.

Charles could get only as far as kneeling on this pants. They would not go further, the legs having been half-knotted as he yanked them while on his back. He spitted and growled and swore in animal frustration. On his knees.

They never spoke again.

The Language of Animals

A Fable

Once upon a time there lived a shepherd who served his master faithfully and honestly. One day whilst keeping the sheep in the forest, he heard a hissing, and wondered what the noise could be. So he went farther into the wood to try and find out. There he saw that the forest was on fire, and a snake was hissing in the midst of the flames. The shepherd watched to see what the snake would do, for it was quite surrounded by the fire, which approached it nearer and nearer.

Then the snake cried out, “For God’s sake, good shepherd, save me from the fire!”

So the shepherd stretched his crook across the flames and the snake glided rapidly over the staff and up his arm onto his shoulder, till at last it wound itself round his neck. Then the shepherd was terrified and exclaimed, “What shall I do? What an unlucky wretch I am! I saved you, and now your are about to kill me!”

The snake answered, “Do not be afraid. Only take me to the house of my father. My father is the king of snakes.”

But the shepherd, being already in great fear, began to excuse himself, saying he must not leave his sheep. Then the snake said, “Nothing will happen to your sheep. Do not be anxious about them. But let us hurry home.”

So the shepherd went on with the snake through the forest, until they came to a gate made entirely of snakes. Then the snake on the neck of the shepherd hissed, and instantly the snakes untwined themselves, so that the man could pass through. As soon as they had gone through, the snake said to him, “When you reach my father’s house he will offer to give you whatever you like — gold, silver, or precious stones. Do not, however, take any of these things. Choose, instead, the language of animals. He will hesitate at first, but at last he will give it you.”

Meanwhile they arrived at the palace, and the king of snakes said, weeping, “For God’s sake, my child, where were you?” Thereupon the snake told him all that had happened, how he had been surrounded by fire, and the shepherd had saved him. Then the snake king said to the shepherd, “What do you wish that I should give you for saving my son?”

The shepherd answered, “I desire nothing but the language of animals.”

The snake king, however, said, “That is not good for you, for if I give it you, and you tell anyone about it, you will instantly die. Therefore it is better that you ask me for something else.”

“If you wish to give me anything,” replied the shepherd, “give me the language of animals. If you will not give me that, I want nothing — so good-bye,” and he turned to go away.

Then the snake king called him back, saying, “If you indeed wish it so much, take it. Open your mouth.” The shepherd did so, and the snake king blew into his mouth, and said, “Now blow once yourself in my mouth.” The Shepherd did so, and then the snake king blew again into his mouth, and this they did three times. After that the snake said, “Now you possess the language of animals. Go, in God’s name, but do not for the world tell anyone about it. If you tell anyone you will instantly die.”

The shepherd returned across the forest, and, passing through it, he understood everything the birds and animals, and even the plants were saying to each other. When he came to his sheep he found them all there, safe and sound, so he laid himself down to rest a little.

Hardly had he done so before two or three ravens settled on a tree near him, and began to converse together, saying, “If that shepherd only knew that just on the spot where the black sheep is lying there is, deep in the earth, a cave full of gold and silver!”

When the shepherd heard that he went off to his master and told him. The master brought a cart, and dug down to the cave, and carried the treasure away home. But the master was honest, so he gave up the whole of the treasure to the shepherd, saying, “Here my son, all this wealth belongs to you. For to you God gave it. Build a house, marry, and live upon the treasure.”

So the shepherd took the money, built a house, and married, and by and by he became the richest man in the whole neighborhood. He kept his own shepherd, and cattle driver, and swineherd. In short, he had great property and made much money.

Once, just at Christmas, he said to his wife, “Get ready some wine and other food, and tomorrow we will feast the shepherds.”

The wife did so, and in the morning they went to their farm. Towards evening the master said to the shepherds, “Come here, all of you. You shall eat, drink, and make merry together, and I will go myself this night to watch the sheep.”

So the master went to watch his sheep, and, about midnight, the wolves began to howl and the dogs to bark. The wolves spoke, in wolf language, “May we come and take something? You also, shall get a part of the prey.”

And the dogs answered, in dog language, “Come! We also are ready to eat something.”

But there was one old dog there who had only two teeth left. This old dog shouted furiously, “Come on, you miserable wretches, if you dare. So long as I have these two teeth left you shall not do any damage to my master’s property.”

All this the master heard and understood. Next day he ordered all the dogs to be killed except that old one. The servants began to remonstrate, saying, “For God’s sake, master, it is a pity to do this.”

But the master answered, “Do as I have ordered you,” and started with his wife to go home. They rode on horseback, he on a fine horse and his wife on a handsome mare. But the master’s horse went so fast that the wife remained a little behind.

Then the master’s horse neighed, and said to the mare, “Come on, why do you stay behind?”

And the mare answered, “Ah, to you it is easy — you are carrying only one weight, and I am carrying three.”

Thereupon the man turned his head and laughed. The wife saw him laughing, and urged the mare on quicker till she came up to her husband, and asked him, “Why were you laughing?”

He said merely, “I had good reason to laugh!”

But the wife was not satisfied, and again begged he would tell her why he laughed. He excused himself, exclaiming, “Give up questioning me. What has come to you, my wife? I forget now why it was I laughed.”

But the more he refused to tell her, the more she wished to know. At last the man said, “If I tell you I shall die immediately!”

That, however, did not quiet her, and she kept on asking, saying to him, “You must tell me.”

In the meantime they reached their house. When they had done so the man ordered a coffin to be made, and, when it was ready, had it placed in front of the house, and laid himself down in it. Then he said to his wife, “Now I will tell you why I laughed, but the moment I tell you I shall die.”

So he looked around once more, and saw that the old dog had come from the field, and had taken his stand over his head, and was howling. When the man noticed this he said to his wife, “Bring a piece of bread for this poor dog.”

The wife brought a piece and threw it to the dog, but the dog did not even look at it, and a cock came near and began to peck at it.

Then the dog said to the cock, “You think only about eating. Do you know that our master is going to die?”

And the cock answered, “Well, let him die, since he is so stupid. I have a hundred wives, and often at nights I gather them all round a grain of corn, and, when they are all there, I pick it up myself. If any of them are angry, I peck them. That is my way of keeping them quiet. Only look at the master, however. He is not able to rule one single wife!”

The man, hearing that, got out of the coffin, took a stick, and called his wife to him, saying slyly, “Come now, and I will tell you what you want to know.”

The wife, seeing she was in danger of getting a beating, left him in peace, and never asked him again why it was he laughed.

The man nodded to himself.  Learning to be smarter than the animals is hard. I am learning.

  • Source: Csedomille Mijatovies, Serbian Folk-Lore (London: W. Isbister and Company, 1874), pp. 37-42. (With the addition of one line by G. Opacic)


Looking out his window, Mahhi sees a cherry tree that is losing its delicate white and pink blossoms. Breezes knock a flutter of them free. They float reluctantly to the carpet of browning blossoms around the tree.

“They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

The building beyond the tree is another condominium. Painted pale blue with a beige-yellow trim, the skin hides an old structure that was the first one on the block. The ancient cherry tree in its entrance rotunda is the sole reminder of a vast orchard that used to feed thousands with its plump apples, pears, peaches, and, of course, cherries. Where a farmhouse had once encircled an industrious family, time caught up to the children of the children until, finally, the last son decided it was too much trouble to keep bringing in workers from Central America to replace his dwindling family’s labour. The farm became a mall surrounded not by an orchard, but by condos.

Mahhi learned this after he sat one day in the mall, on a bench beside an elderly lady. He had been careful to keep his distance.

He was polite. “Do you mind if I sit here, ma’am? My leg is giving me trouble…”

She had cocked her head to better hear down the length of the bench. “What?”

Directing his face toward her, Mahhi repeated a little louder to get through his mask, “I said, do you mind if I sit here, ma’am?  The other benches are occupied and my leg is giving me trouble. It’s an… old wound.”

He remembers looking at her face, her deep wrinkles, and wondering how old she was.

The old lady’s voice had the tremble of age. With an aggravated wave of her cane, “Of course you can, young man! There’s enough room for another three people…” The beginning of her rant trailed off as she looked around for someone who was going to reprimand her. Quietly grumbling, “Damned social distancing. Anti-social distancing! We’re all going crazy. Becoming robots. And I don’t care what they say.” She had looked around again suspiciously.

Mahhi had reluctantly let out a groan while sitting down, causing the old lady to glance at him. She couldn’t help noticing that his mask was slipping off his nose and he had absently pulled it down to his throat. His salt-and-pepper beard then caught her attention. “My grandfather had a beard like yours… So long ago… Better times.” She had nodded off into a daydream.

Mahhi needed to shift a few times to get comfortable. He stretched his left leg out.

The old lady did an uncomfortable double-take as she realized his left leg was a metal rod holding a shoe. She had quickly looked away and fiddled with her cane.

Amused but still annoyed by that century-old attitude, Mahhi had pointedly readjusted the pant sleeve then massaged the end of his flesh leg just below his knee. “Haven’t been able to get a comfortable replacement ‘thesis since, well, since this pandemic started.” He had turned to the old lady to see if she shivered at his handling of what some of the older generation still thought of as a taboo subject. He was pleased to see the old lady gather her inner strength to look down at his leg.

“Does it hurt?” Then she had shivered.

Empathy, he thought. I will reciprocate. “Thank you for asking, ma’am. No, it doesn’t hurt, as it did when it was blown off by a mine. I will admit to that having been painful.” Careful with the gallows humour. It may be too much for her.

The old lady surprised Mahhi. “I’m so sorry, young man. You brought forth so many memories…” Her eyes dulled as she recollected, Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse…

Brought back to the present by the noise of another passing walker, the old lady had flashed a grin at her bench companion, “My name is Lucy. I was born nearby. My family owned the farm and orchard that covered over two hundred acres of this area… Long ago…” She looked at his well-trimmed beard, then into his eyes. “Very sorry. My name is Lucy. You remind me so much of Gramps. Gramps lost his right arm in the Boer War, but we never talked about it. Then he caught that horrible Spanish Flu and suffered so much before coughing his lungs out. Which is why I became a nurse… Sorry. The memories are too fresh.” She had been playing with her cane as she spoke then finished by placing it between her legs and leaning both hands on the handle. Her pose, the colourful sweater and her cane had reminded Mahhi of the old folks who used to sit in front of the coffee-houses back home, arguing endlessly and passionately about the trivialities of life. He was certain their fate was to have been buried under the rubble of their blown-up buildings.

Mahhi had nodded at Lucy in sympathy. “That’s a solid-looking cane. I was supposed to be sent one, but I expect my request is down the list.”

Lucy had twigged to his slight English accent. “Did you… were you wounded in a war? Your accent… Sorry to be so nosy.”

He had waved his hand. “Not at all, my dear. Attended Oxford.” He had nodded at his leg. “The war was, elsewhere…” He thought it may be time to change the subject. “These days, during the few times we are permitted to socially interact, older conventions must be flung out the window. Wouldn’t you say?”

Nodding, Lucy had been eager to keep talking – to anyone. And this person’s face appears so kind, she thought. “You have a kind face, young man.” Then her old pixie had made an appearance with, “Don’t know if I’d have let you sit down if you’d been clean-shaven.”

They had both shared a grin.

Slowly, from deep behind his face, Mahhi’s thoughts started yet another spiral into the abyss. Who am ‘I’. I don’t stare at my ‘face’ so I don’t really know this thing is outside of my eyes. Does it have a beard? He had run his fingers through the beard.  Raising his head to climb back out of the darkness, “So, a year ago, you would have waved your cane at me to ward me off the bench?” Mahhi wondered, Is she quick enough, still, for repartee?

She was. “Yes. But I would have used as an excuse this horrible virus thing.”

Then the Virus Chill had descended over them, with the darkness of giving up. Briefly.

She had managed to shake her cane at the slippery spiral. “Young man, you know my name…?”

“Of course! So sorry. Please call me Mahhi. My manners have become very rusty recently. Mahhi,“ he repeated, as he had seen her struggle with the name. Then he decided to open up a bit. “My leg was a casualty of the recent fighting in my home city, Aleppo. I was, had been, an archaeologist and assistant curator of one of the museums on the Euphrates River. Aleppo is the oldest city in the world and has, did have… so much history to uncover.” With the painful memories, his whole body had shrunk into the bench turning him into such a forlorn-looking man that Lucy had instinctively slid over to hold Mahhi’s hand. The shattering of social distancing protocols could almost be heard echoing off the walls of the mostly shuttered mall stores. A person who had been shuffling her walker toward the bench had stopped, mouth open in astonishment at the scene.

Mahhi smiled at the shuffler, “My mother. She is trying to support me in these difficult times.”

The shuffler had nodded to Lucy, “Good for you, girl. These poor kids need all the help they can get.” She had carried on past them, no longer worried about making a labourious wide arc around the bench.

Lucy had grinned and patted Mahhi’s hand again.

They decided that they might each come to the mall every other day and perhaps find a bench. To talk.

That had been how Mahhi had found out the story about the orchard, Lucy’s family, and the buildings all built up on their former farm. In turn, Mahhi had told Lucy about his people who used to live on the hill overlooking the headwaters of the Euphrates.

One day, in a particularly sombre mood, Mahhi had mused, “My dear, I can see so many similarities between the history of your family farm, and what my city became… with what happened to the ten thousand years of my own people living through their many plagues and invasions and family squabbles in Aleppo. Here, in microcosm, it happens again.  It makes me wonder if things ever change for humanity in significant ways. Or, are we merely reliving the same things in an endless series of different universes?”

She had thoughtfully considered his assessment. Lucy had grown found of her sometimes morose new “son”. She had made a point of asking him to help her pronounce his name correctly. “So, Mahhi. You are asking a question that a farmer does not bother with. Why is left to those who mope around the cold quadrangles of stony institutions. A farmer plants, and grows things, and places food on the table. Today and tomorrow. Here in our Farmhouse.” She had waved around at what had become their own private name for the mall, where her family farmhouse had once proudly stood.

By then, over the weeks after their first meeting, several of the regular shufflers had decided to take up positions in front of the bench. Seated on their walkers, they were more or less far enough away from each other. When one of the mall security people had come by to pass on the objections of the administration, who had received a complaint from a fast-walker who had been forced to find a wider route through the area, he was met with a chorus of “Fiddlesticks!” Or words to that effect. Later, the security guard made a point of placing tape lines the floor to mark out 2-metre sections. The next day he had stayed to listen. Then he became a regular member of what they called themselves: The Farm Family.

As the days wore into each other, some of the others added their comments or rants. Mostly, they had listened, as if watching a television show.

The devastating blow came about three months after their first meeting. For Mahhi, it was infinitely worse than having his leg blown off by the mine. Lucy had been found by a neighbour in her little room in the older condo, behind the cherry tree. She passed away next day.

It took a week before Mahhi could make himself visit the Farmhouse. By then, The Farm Family had made the bench into a flower-filled memorial. Tears flowed down into Mahhi’s beard as he stared at the memorial. He had stood unsteadily for he knew not how long until the security guard took his arm to lead him to one of the chairs that had been allowed by mall administration to be left against a shuttered window in front of the bench.

Now, a month later, he contemplated the blossoming cherry tree. “They shimmer in the sun. Give their pollen to the bees. So soon they fall. Too soon they wrinkle, to join the dust of the earth.” He pulls at his whitening beard. “As do we.”

He sees his reflection in the window. “Lucy, you saw my beard. I do not see my beard from my side of the eyes. I remember the mirror image of my face as it was for so many years before the beard. Before the pandemic. Every morning I scraped off the offending hair because that was tradition. But if it wasn’t for my beard, if it wasn’t for the virus, I would not have known your lovely wrinkled old face. Your smile creased the ages. I see you still, before me.”

He focuses back onto the cherry tree. “You blossomed, pink and white, shining in the sun. Until you became wrinkled and dried into the dust that will nourish another tree.” A car drives under the cherry and kicks up the blossoms. He adds sadly, “If you are not paved over, or covered in the detritus of our so-called civilization.”

Mahhi turns his head up to the clouds. “My face, her face, the faces of all those I knew, why do they not learn?”

His heart answers, She will tell me: Say not Why? Lucy will say: Plant, grow, put food on the table…

He shakes his head. And I still must ask, Lucy: Is this enough? Is there no better answer?

The Soft Shoe and the Whole Damn Thing

Twenty-six union business managers are squeezed together along a row of doubled white linen-covered tables. Across from them are twenty-seven business-suited contractors. With the width of two tables separating both sides, the echoey room has to be large. This room’s expansive windows, unlike others in the smaller meeting rooms, are covered with adjustable blinds that come from the bottom. They are set at half way up, strategically allowing the sun to shine directly into the eyes of the people occupying the far side of the tables. The faces of those near the windows, union representatives from across the province, are obscured by the bright light behind them.

The central union figure, Sandy, is a large-faced, large-bodied man dressed in his severe dark blue “negotiations suit”, red patterned tie included. He is working himself up to a rousing crescendo. His angry words are hurled, along with occasional theatrical spit, toward the smaller man opposite. Even as his face is darkened by the shadow, his redden features and neck can be seen to be bulging with emotion.

The recipient of the barrage, Clay, is wearing a sober face, though his tightly shaved mustache twitches occasionally. His mostly bald head is bracketed by a herringbone suit, which manages to have the appearance of both a newly-stiff collar and worn elbow-pads. Under the verbal onslaught, Clay slowly sinks lower into his suit in an attempt to use the lapels as earmuffs.

Sandy’s body rises with his crescendo and he suddenly pulls off a shoe and bangs it on the table, Khrushchev-like, yelling. “And we WON’T BE PUSHED AROUND ANYMORE!”

Most of his own side support the outburst. They all mumble or grunt various levels of approval as Sandy plops back down, satisfied with his performance. Sandy pulls a hanky across his face to wipe the sweat away.

On the other side, all but two of the twenty-seven contractor-representatives are startled. They quietly exchange worried looks. Clay glances to his left, checking on Henry, his “Co-Chair” and newly appointed Director of Labour Relations.

With the shoe banging, Henry is thinking, May we have a translation of that please? as he remembers the 1960s story of Khrushchev’s UN shoe-banging incident and Harold Macmillan’s dry English comment.

Henry is younger than all but one at the table. He is taller, with a thick black mustache and full head of black hair. Henry’s light, striped suit is calculated to blend in to most backgrounds. With this sun shining directly on it, the suit glares in the face of the union reps who look at him. So they don’t. Within, Henry is as concerned as the others in his group. Outwardly, he has learned to strictly control his facial muscles. They remain perfectly relaxed, because he has willed them so.

Allowing the reverberations to die down for a minute, Clay’s head rises fully above his collar. Seeing him out of the corner of his eye, Henry is reminded of a groundhog poking up in a field on his farm. Thinking, He’s more like the grizzly playfully scratching his back on a tree then suddenly taking off after you with a big mouthful of grinning teeth.

“Thank you, Sandy, for expressing your views about this clause. And, of course, we will take it under advisement.”

Sandy and Clay exchange neutral nods.

“And now, I would like to suggest that we adjourn talks for this first day. Over the afternoon we have been able to exchange our positions frankly. We have a lot to consider in caucus. Before we commit to the dates for further talks, are we agreed to reconvene tomorrow at eight?”

The young union rep from London has to get in with, “That’s a.m., right?”

Sandy’s head snaps angrily toward the newbie, who shrinks back into his seat, away from the glare of the Toronto union boss.

Ignoring the newbie’s comment, Clay looks across at Sandy and receives a nod when Sandy turns his head back to him, then both look up and down their sides of the table. No dissent.

“Fine, then. A productive day.” Clay turns to Henry, “Caucus for half an hour for our side, then freshen up and for those who want, we can meet in the bar at seven?” Clay is directing that to his people but glances at Sandy, whose nod comes at the same time as Henry’s.

Entering the bright, noisy hotel bar, Henry stands before the maître d’.

“Would you like a table, sir, or do you prefer the bar?”

Henry is new at this, freshly hired out of university with a degree in labour relations. He did very well in class and as a graduate student. Now in the real world, he fully understands that there are many different things to learn. Henry prides himself on being a sponge for knowledge. His attitude is, I am here to learn.

To the maître d’, “Not sure… I’m handling the union negotiations?…”

“Of course, sir. We have a quiet table in the back corner. How many would there be?”

“Make it a table for four, but it is likely to be just two of us. I think the others are going to be at the bar.”

He notices groups of his people and theirs, and a joint group happily and sometimes roughly partaking of the libations. Their main concentration appears to be on the hockey game being shown on two televisions above the bar.

As Henry steps to follow the maître d’, Clay arrives. He gets the maître d’s attention with a raised hand, “Hold the table for us, please, but we’ll sit at the bar for a few minutes.”

“Fine, sir.”

Clay heads right for Sandy, who has been alone at the bar for at least one drink so far. His tie is missing and the top two buttons on his shirt are open. Henry can’t help but notice the chest hair spilling out. Seating himself next to Sandy, Clay smiles, “Nice display.”

Sandy grins wryly, “Thanks. Needed that for… you know who.” He nods at Henry, who seats himself beside Clay. “This is new for you?”

Glancing at Clay, “Ah, yes. Very interesting.” Henry is not sure why they are speaking so openly to “the opposition”.

Clay grins.

The bartender arrives, “What can I get you gents?”

“Whiskey. Neat.”

“Ah, a screwdriver, please.”

The bartender quickly serves Clay his whiskey then prepares the screwdriver.

Henry takes his tall glass, “Thanks. Ah, please put the whiskey and my drink on my room tab? 401.’

“Of course, sir.”

The hockey game takes their attention for a minute.

Sandy then turns to Clay, patting his arm, “How’s Shirley doing?”

Shaking his head, “As well as can be expected. You know how it is. The chemo is really tough. I try to keep her spirits up, but… you know.”

Sympathetically, “Yeah. Tough. Took my Mary three months of torture… Thank you for coming to the memorial, Clay.” He pats Clay’s arm again.

Henry didn’t know about Clay’s wife. Nor Sandy’s. Much to learn.

Sandy changes the subject. “Have you filled in your new boy?”

A wry grin, “He’s a university student, Sandy. Give him time.”

“Teach him how to dance… Got to go.” As Sandy rises he leans toward Henry, “That Khrushchev was for my Ottawa guy.” He winks. “Claude still thinks he can get another two bucks plus the bump to 15 minutes break. Oh. Clay, keep away, stay away from Popovich from Sudbury. He’s spoiling for a fight.” Sandy half-nods, looking for a positive response.

“We’ll see.” Clay flashes a pixy smile on then off. “Might need to shake things up some time… Talk later.”

Sandy will not be dismissed. He puts his face close to Clay’s ear, “Fuck off. Don’t use him, for both our asses. He’s a time bomb.” Clay nods and pats Sandy’s arm encouragingly as he and Henry drop off their seats as well.

Making their way to the table, Clay lowers his voice to Henry. “The secret to construction negotiations is, it’s a dance.” He winks at Henry as they seat themselves at their table.

“A dance.” Henry takes in this next morsel of information.

Clay settles in, then leans toward Henry across the table. “It’s a dance. We all know the moves. The key is not to step on someone’s toes… Even the small fry – they can squeal every bit as loud as the others. The dance moves are already known. Everybody follows the steps. It has to be predictable, Henry. If someone screws up, there’s millions of dollars worth of projects at risk. When it comes down to it, who cares a rat’s ass about Billy’s Plumbing in Tillsonburg. But if the nuclear plant is delayed by a week, all hell’s going to break loose.”

Clay relaxes back into his seat. He looks around, satisfied that nobody is within hearing distance. “It’s not just the money on the line. If we put a crimp in the government’s pet projects, or if the public starts yelling at them, the government’ll throw some mediator at us and then cook up some artsy-fartsy legislation to threaten us and, as likely as not, the mediator’ll be clueless about what’s really going on. That would not be good for either the business managers or our major owners. Nobody wants that… Except for a couple of the old-time rabble-rousers from the bad old days who don’t know any better just ‘cause they got a commy burr up their ass. So Sandy had to make like a commy to feed them their shit… Anyway… You did well. Just follow my lead. Don’t say anything unless I ask for it… Hah! Sandy’s still fuming about the idiot from London who opened his trap. NObody speaks at the table but the two friggen speakers. If I ever ask you a question, just tell me exactly what I want to hear and then shut up…” Clay softens his tone, “Sorry. That’s one of the dance no-nos. His London guy’s your age. Still learning…” He is about to reach for papers in his coat pocket. “Here, Brian from Windsor gave me his psych notes.” Clay smiles. “Oh. You notice they’re sitting with their backs to the window?”

Henry nods.

“Old trick. It’s like who’s going to grab the baseball bat handle first. If you know how many hands it takes to get to the top… You ever play ball?”

Nodding, “Yeah. Figured that one out fast. If the bat got tossed to me, I’d take a hit on the head just to grab it at the right spot.” They both smile.

“So with the sun behind them, we can’t see their faces, their expressions. Brian is sitting off to the side and he’s really good with body language. Read his stuff.”

Clay finishes reaching into his coat pocket to pull out a small pack of sheets folded into three. He hands the papers to Henry. “Look it over. Brian also figures Claude and Poppy are the loose canons. Think about how that can be used if we ever need it. Oh, and give me your thoughts on Alexander. His company’s in trouble – lost that big pulp mill job two days ago to Fox. Don’t want him screwing us up with some behind-the-scenes deal, right? Don’t do anything yet, but give me some options. Ok?”

“Right.” Henry remembers to pull out a scrap of paper to write down his notes. “Do we use electronics –  I mean, like, hire surveillance pros?”

Clay shakes his head, “Naw. Leave that shit to the unions.”

The server arrives at their table. “Have you gentlemen decided?”

Clay is amused, “Huh! With what? Didn’t bring us the menus.”

“Oh! I’m very sorry, sir! I’ll be right back…”

Clay waves a hand. “No no. I know the menu by heart. Henry?”

“Well, I have an allergy to onions. Can you recommend something?”

During their wait for the meal and over the meal itself, Clay continues passing tidbits of information about how the real world of bargaining goes, interspersed with gossip about the characters on both sides.

Henry sponges it up. “What about Sandy. You two must have crossed swords for a lot of years?”

“We don’t cross swords. We’re the medics. MASH. When anything goes wrong at our table, everyone suffers. You remember four years ago? The whole construction industry went out. Know why?”

Henry had been in third year at university. The topic had been discussed in a poly-sci class. He recites to Clay that the prof’s conclusion was that the strike had been inevitable because of the provincial political battles at the time and the black-knight attempted takeover of the major engineering firm which was bidding on the huge nuclear power station contract.

“Naw. It was mosquitoes and hunting.”

Henry is about to let a laugh escape. He turns it into a smile. “Ok. I’ll bite. What happened?”

“Ha. Ha. Bite. Ok, there was that large food plant being built in London. And the SOB business manager for the UA, the previous one. And, there was the nice sunny weather that summer. The whole f..” Clay looks around for any raging grannies, “the whole friggen industry – from the managers down – everybody’d booked their two weeks hunting vacation for the open season. So when some kid apprentice goes running to the union about there being too many mosquitoes when he was climbing the building’s outside ladders, the business manager says, Down tools! Even then, Sandy and I could have stopped it, but the boss of the project firm, who wasn’t even in London, picks up his phone, yells at both the government and the media, and we couldn’t do a damn thing. Hands tied. Two weeks later, everybody hauls back from camp with their empties and a moose or two, and we’re back to work. Millions lost. Government hopping mad. Legislation changed… ‘Course, it was that legislation that got you your job. So, good-news/bad-news, eh?”

“Mosquitoes, huh?”

Clay rubs his hands. “All right. I’m ready for dessert!” He waves for the attention of the server.

Time passes a bit longer than Clay wants. He is not in the happiest mood when the server saunters by.

“What pies you got?”

“Thank you, sir. Here is the dessert menu.”

Clay takes it and quickly settles on, “Pecan. Pecan pie. And not a little sliver, mind!”

It is Henry’s turn. “The apple, please.”

“Excellent choices, gentlemen. I’ll be back shortly.”

Several minutes later, the server returns and, with a flourish, deposits two large plates before them. Each plate has an elegant, almost visible circle of caramel drizzled around the perimeter. A hint of frosting has been introduced over the feature contents, which are each an engineering marvel of the thinnest slices, still standing vertically, of what must have been apple on one plate and pecan on the other.

Clay is not pleased.

“I said pie. Not a tiny sliver of pie. Mine isn’t even thick enough to have half a pecan in it sitting sideways!”

The server starts a chuckle, thinking Clay is joking, but Clay’s facial expression of anger stops him from digging a deeper hole.

“Sir. I am very sorry that our dessert chef has prepared these so, ah, thin. I will be back immediately with more substantial pieces.”

He is about to whisk the plates away when Clay catches his hand. “You didn’t understand me. When I said pie, I meant PIE! The whole damn PIE!”


Henry jumps in. “The whole pie, please.”

Well, the server does return with two whole pies. They are big ones.

Henry has to ask for a doggy box for the rest of his. Clay finishes his pie off in record time. The whole damn thing.

On his way back to his room, Henry’s stomach is not comfortable. At all. Walking into his bathroom, he mumbles, ”He may dance the soft shoe but lord help anyone this guy wants to kick in the face.”

Shorts 2

Swinging In The Breeze

by George Opacic

Campbell River. A lovely place to retire.

“First, you have to be able to afford to retire,” mumbles Ian, an almost-retired businessman.

Ian is seated on a lichen-encrusted rock beside the trail that leads to Elk Falls Bridge. The chain-link sides of the suspension bridge still glisten with dew in the morning. Rushing water from the river below provides overpowering music for the idyllic area. Ian closes his eyes as he takes in a deep lungful of pine forest air.

Ian is alerted by scuffling noises from up the trail. He sees a thin eighty-year-old in light shorts, white tee-shirt with a small pack bouncing on his back, using jogging sticks to propel himself toward the bridge and past Ian’s rock. Giving a quick glance in Ian’s direction, without slowing down the jogger holds his sticks up while striding down the bridge’s slope. A lone woman tourist who has been standing quietly in the middle of the bridge looks up in annoyance at the bouncing caused by the jogger. Then the watcher is caught in fascination, seeing the athletic gent, older than the watcher by at least ten years, bearing down on her until he squeezes past and works his wiry legs quickly up the far side to disappear down the path.

The watcher stands with both hands gripping the top of the chain-link barrier, staring at where the jogger had so briefly been.

A large plastic cup of fruit and a muffin are half-consumed on the large rock next to Ian. Absently taking his metal fork in hand, he keeps his eyes on the bridge: the jogger’s bounces have become slow sways; the watcher turns her head to stare back down at the rushing water below the bridge; a raven calls nearby; the watcher shakes her head slightly then takes her blue baseball hat and tosses it into the water.

Without registering what he is actually seeing, Ian continues taking in the scene as the watcher stretches a stiff leg up to try to put it over the chain-link barrier. It won’t quite reach.

Ian suddenly finds himself beside the watcher.

“Hello there.”

The bridge is still bouncing from Ian’s headlong rush.

“Go away.”

Puffing a bit, Ian tries to be nonchalant. “Breathtaking view, isn’t it?”

The watcher lets her inflexible leg back down while holding on tightly because of the bouncing bridge.

“What view?” The watcher drops her gaze. “That water is rushing almost as fast as time.” She shakes her head, “No time left…” She leans against the hard chain-link, wanting to drop over.

Ian touches the watcher’s shoulder. “My name is Ian…”

“Bugger off, Ian.” The watcher continues to press against the metal fencing.

Just wanting to keep talking, Ian searches for something to say. “Can’t bugger off, I’m afraid. Part of the human race… As are you. Have to stick around. Part of the contract.”

The watcher half shakes her head but turns annoyance into a polite retort. “Ian. I’m not with that bunch anymore. Not human. Your contract doesn’t apply to me. Thank you anyway, but… bugger off. Please.”

They stare at each other for a quiet minute. Ian sees a generation of yellow-tinged wrinkles that make up the watcher’s face; hollow eyes that used be blue, perhaps, but are now corroded gun-metal grey; salt-and-pepper hair that is uncombed and lies limply against her shoulders; her clothes have been unwashed for months.

“I’m an addict. Used to be just a drunk. There’s nothing left inside. Nothing to save… Leave me alone and go back to your nice life.”

Still at a loss for words, “I can’t pretend to know how you feel…”

“My god, I hope you never know how I feel, Ian. It would kill you, too.” The watcher turns away to stare at the river below. “Used to have a family, a house. No dog. Wanted one. He didn’t… Had a car accident. Can’t even remember it much. They say I hit someone. I remember a slice of a picture of me hitting the other car after that. Woke up in hospital and they starting stuffing needles into my good arm and leg. It was a good blur after that. For a few hours. Then I cried for more… Kicked me out and said I should see a shrink. And a lawyer. She hated me. Said I killed…”

The watcher’s eyes well up and her face writhes into agony.

“The shrink gave me needles and then pills. They made my mind into a tub of molasses, only not sweet. Just thick and grey. But I needed more. More pills. Then more needles. Then everyone left me.” Her now ugly face turns to Ian. “The human race walked away from me!”

She shakes the chain-link fence, cutting her hand on the sharp edges. She absently licks the blood.

“So, bugger off, Ian.”

Would you?

Shorts 1

What Would You Do?

Following an older minivan down a rough paved road in the northern part of Vancouver Island. We pass endless trees growing close to the road, held away by ditches on either side. The drive is marred by clearcuts and fire-kill that rape the low hills, scarring the land for generations.

The minivan driver’s head can be seen nodding aggressively to heavy metal that could be heard if I left my window open. I keep it closed to shut out that and the motorcycle’s racket from behind me. It has been following on my bumper for an hour, refusing to pass, just droning endlessly.

Heading toward a slight bend in the road, the minivan driver’s nodding has become quiet. He wakes up just in time to lose control as he plummets down the near bank, does a lovely pirouette along the far bank, then rolls back down into the centre of the ditch, bouncing, and finally ending upside-down in the wet weeds.

As I slam to a stop on the narrow shoulder ahead of the minivan, the motorcycle screeches hard behind me and overcontrols, sending that driver into a high flip over his bike which lands him half into the ditch ahead of me.

I get out in a panic and decide to rush over to the motorcyclist. He is lying in a spread-out heap with his neck at a gut-wrenchingly weird angle. Not wanting to move his neck in case it is broken, I figure out how to carefully raise his helmet visor. Blood is dribbling from his mouth into his beard and his eyes are shut. His chest is not moving.

Since the motorcyclist is, at best, beyond my ability to help him, I turn away to slip down the ditch to reach the overturned minivan. Through the cracked windscreen I can see the back of a very corpulent man sprawled out on the inside roof behind the front seats, incongruously collecting things and putting them into a large kitbag.

As he sees me try to open the passenger door he violently waves me away. Confused, I back off. The driver continues, more quickly, to grab small pieces of paper from around him and stuff them into his kitbag. As he rolls over to reach across his bulbous chest, I see blood pouring down the side of his forehead. At this time, his head slumps fully against the floor, with his thick tattooed arm plopping off his chest to slide beside his body.

I grab the door handle and, after a couple hard pulls, yank it open. The strong smell of weed is even more prominent than it was outside. The driver remains still but I am encouraged to hear a low groan.

There are crumpled twenty and fifty dollar bills scattered everywhere inside the minivan. A pistol lies near the driver’s feet. Hairs begin to rise on the back of my neck. I think about just backing away from this scene.

Shaking my head, I take one of the bills and use it to wrap around the barrel of the pistol, tossing it out the door behind me. With several clean tissues I had stuffed into my pocket while getting out of my car, I gently wipe the blood from the driver’s eyes. He opens them and I can see that he is focusing on me. I don’t know why I notice that tissue bits have collected in his stubble.

“Take it easy – are you hurt anywhere else?”

He puts his free hand up to his head. It comes away with blood all over his fat fingers. I give him the wad of tissues. He awkwardly wipes away more blood.

“You should apply pressure to the cut… Hold the tissues tightly against…”

He twists away but then slumps back down, out again.

I take the tissues from his hand to apply gentle pressure to the head wound. A few minutes pass. He rolls his head away from my pressure but I leave the tissues on the cut.

“Don’t pull the tissues off yet. It’ll start bleeding again.”

The driver raises his hand up to the tissues then decides to leave them.

Twisting his head with difficulty, he stares directly at me. “Who are you? You a cop?”

Smiling, I shake my head, “No. I was driving behind you when I saw you roll. It looks like the airbags stopped you from going through the windshield. Are you ok, other than the cut on your forehead?”

The driver thinks for a bit, moving his free arm then his legs. “Help me turn over. I, ah, have a lot of cushioning.”

I pull on his shoulder and hip to get him flat on his back.

“Left arm. Feels… Shit. Something wrong with my wrist.”

He lifts up his left arm and tries to flex his hand. “Goddamnit! Can’t move my hand.” Then he remembers his kitbag and the bills. He grabs my arm in a powerful grip with his right hand. “Put back everything you took! Or I’ll…”

He looks around for his pistol.

Calmly, “Take it easy, friend. I didn’t touch your money. Let me help you outside. Oh! There was a motorcyclist who flipped right after you did. Let me help you out then I’ll see if he’s… He didn’t look good.”


“Well, his neck looked broken…”

“Good. Leave the fucker there. Was tailing me. Help me get to my knees. Have to…” With that, the driver’s eyes go blank and he slumps back down.

Confused, I feel his grip on me release so I back out of the minivan. The pistol is just outside the door. Making a decision, I take a tissue from my back pocket, pick the pistol up with it, then, still wrapped, I stuff the pistol into my back pocket with other tissues.

Waiting a minute to think, I see the driver wake up once more. He touches the tissues on his wound but leaves them. With enormous effort, he rolls onto his right side then uses his good arm to get to his knees. Ignoring me, the driver once again starts collecting the loose bills around him and pushes them into the kitbag with one arm. It gets overflowing-stuffed. Absently watching the scene, I make up a number, mumbling under my breath, “Two hundred thousand?”

The driver stops and grins at me. “Close. You’re a cop, right? No problem. With Shitface dead, I’ll give you some of this if you drive me to the ferry… No questions. No fuss. Just free money. I can disappear and you can do what you want with… shall we say, ten grand? Ten big ones and all you have to do is drop me off at the ferry. You can be my Uber driver.”

He resumes collecting bills then reaches for another bag. The driver doesn’t raise his head as he adds, “Make up your mind before someone else comes along.”

It is tempting. I pat the pistol in my pocket then shift it, feeling through the cloth, so that the handle is up.

Slyly, “You got the gun. What’s to worry about. Here, take this full bag and zip it for me while I finish off in here.

As he rises to swing the kitbag out awkwardly with his good hand, he hits the ceiling/floor of the minivan. “OW! DAMNIT!”

The tissues fall off his forehead and the cut opens up again. It doesn’t pour out as quickly as before but it still needs to be staunched. With my last few tissues from around the pistol, I reach in to help the driver. He tries to grab my arm again. I back off.

Throwing the tissues at him into the minivan, I back off. “Clean yourself off, this time. If you can’t trust me I guess I’ll have to go report the accident.”

“Wait!” The driver leans onto his left elbow and holds his right hand toward me. More quietly, “Wait a minute. Not in any shape to argue.” He smiles, “And here you are trying to help a fat old accountant while I… Listen. You got all the cards. All I got is some money. You say you’ll help me for twenty thou and that’s the deal.” He bends his thick neck enough to look me in the eye. “What do you say?”

What would YOU do?

(adapted from a narration of an incident by John Wilson)